Hell Is for Heroes


Street Date 4/11/23;
Kino Lorber;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Harry Guardino, James Coburn, Fess Parker, Nick Adams, Bob Newhart.

Perched before your eyes dwells an old dove whose feathers ruffle at the mere thought of war films that end happily. Glamorizing war for the sake of entertainment and/or enlistment purposes is almost as heinous as clubbing baby seals or denying election results. By all rights, great war films should end with not one cast member left standing. It’s the ultimate statement an artist can make on the subject. Alas, there is no such thing as a bad genre, but damn if recruitment films aren’t second in line behind slasher films as the worst cinema has to offer. Even then, Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima is so effectively persuasive that before the final fade you’re halfway out the door in search of the nearest Military Entrance Processing Station. Hell Is For Heroes spends half of its running time straddling comedy and war’s horrors before director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick) takes a relentless, much needed tumble over to the dark side.

There’s a difference between characters laughing under pressure and audience-appeasing shtick, a line that’s easily blurred by screenwriters Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr. From Marx Bros. gag writer to “The Waltons” scribe, Pirosh found steady work as producer, studio scenarist and beyond. His service during World War II formed a basis for Battleground (1949), his smash, awards-all-around combat drama. “Combat!,” Pirosh’s small-screen follow-up to 1962’s Hell Is for Heroes, hit the airwaves just as its predecessor’s theatrical run was winding down. Apart from back-to-back big screen glories — John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues predated Hell Is For Heroes — co-scripter Carr carved his niche on the small screen. The majority of the dialog would have felt at home on “Combat!” It’s only when the characters shut up long enough to allow Siegel to draw us into the action that we begin to feel for them. Bonus points: a stock footage assemblage of cannon fire no doubt inspired by the director’s salad days spent cutting together montages for Warner Bros.

Situated in Montigny, France, a rest area within spitting distance of the Siegfried line, Sgt. Larkin (Harry Guardino) and his men don’t know it, but the army stands poised to set the battalion up for a sanity-rattling letdown. Looking to bolster morale, the combat-fatigued squadron is led to believe a move stateside is imminent, when in fact, the top brass has something in mind other than rest and relaxation. Rather than reassignment, the squad is ordered back to the front line. Bad news: there’s but six men holding the section. Good news: the Germans didn’t know it.

The pacing suffers to no end from the forced, TV-sized comic relief that plagues the film’s first half. Opening scenes alternate uncomfortably between serviceable ’60s service comedy and prelude to a variation on the Bataan Death March. Private Dave Corby (Bobby Darin) is the Ensign Pulver of infantrymen, a walking PX quick with a joke and eager to provide one with anything from libations to ink pens for a price. Of all the characters in the film, Corby is the least developed. Coming close is Homer (Nick Adams), a Polish mascot of sorts, a “displaced person” following the band around like a Grateful Dead groupie looking to hitch a ride back to the States while earning cheap laughs with his fractured English.

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A good portion of the shooting, both in and out of the studio, took place at night, but don’t be quick to label it a war noir. Necessitated by the heatwave that hit Cottonwood and Reading, Calif., in the sweltering summer of 1961, a night shoot was put in place to oblige the actors. Making his big screen debut as PFC James E. Driscoll, Bob Newhart pulls up around the halfway mark in a jeep loaded with typewriters. His picture credit in the trailer was accompanied by a parenthetical (THE BUTTON DOWN MIND), a reference to Newhart’s top-selling comedy album of the same name. According to the comedian’s autobiography, the unexpected success of the LP resulted in sell-out crowds for his nightclub performances. Looking to cash in, Newhart pleaded with Siegel to kill Driscoll off so as to accommodate more time for standup gigs. The director assured him that his character would live to see the end.

Newhart was a prop comic who became famous for working a phone on stage, earning laughs by allowing audiences to eavesdrop on his side of the conversation. The producers reserved a minute or so of the running time for Newhart to ply his act. Knowing full well that the Krauts bugged the makeshift headquarters, Driscoll pretends to be the group entertainment officer calling his C.O. to complain about inflicting repeat viewings of Road to Morocco on the men. (Newhart wrote his own dialogue.) Siegel’s objections to the scene were shot down by studio heads eager to cross-promote. Newhart remained M.I.A. for the majority of the climactic combat but, true to Siegel’s word, he popped up for one last shot before the soldiers commenced to blow up the pillbox.

Steve McQueen’s Reese is a consummate Siegel loner, a man of few words who goes out of his way not to make friends. His life is one series of broken promises after another. What’s the best way to keep Reese from going into town for a few snorts? Tell him the tavern is strictly off limits. He ignores the shot glass provided by the barkeep, opting to drink straight from the bottle. Soldiers are trained to take orders. Reese is a Dirty Harry-style vigilante, a professional living for combat and refusing to crack up until the pressure is off.

No sooner does the final bomb gut the pillbox than the film grinds to a grainy halt. Some have interpreted the abrupt ending as a nihilistic middle finger to the militaristic control of a malevolent government. When asked, Newhart told an interviewer the film had gone so wildly over budget that Paramount refused to provide any more film stock.

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Toward the end of his life, my father and I began bonding over war movies. He would bring me up to speed on military jargon while I pointed out the fluid long takes and mise-en-scene in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way. My father would have loved the audio commentary shared by filmmakers and historians Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin.

Steve McQueen Actioner ‘Hell Is for Heroes’ Arrives on Blu-ray Disc on April 11

Kino Lorber on April 11 will release the 1962 Steve McQueen actioner Hell Is for Heroes on Blu-ray Disc at a suggested retail price of $29.95.

Directed by Don Siegel, the film co-stars James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker and Bob Newhart.

McQueen plays a defiant loner whose skills as a soldier make him invaluable to his struggling platoon. In the heat of battle during World War II, McQueen and his fellow soldiers find themselves severely outnumbered as they hold off a Nazi advance along the Siegfried Line in France. Using only their ingenuity and bravery, they must bluff the Germans in order to buy some time — and save their lives.

Hell Is for Heroes arrives on Blu-ray Disc from a brand-new HD master made from a 4K scan of the original the 35mm camera negative. The release includes a new audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and Jay Rubin, author of the book Combat Films: American Realism. The package also includes the original theatrical trailer, newly mastered in 4K.



Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Susan Anton, James Coburn, Curt Jürgens, Robert Culp, Harry Guardino, Michael Lerner, Leslie Caron, John Newcombe.

Goldengirl skipped my radar the week it opened in 1979. If one were to judge a film by its hype, my verdict on the Goldengirl one-sheet was guilty of promising a standard issue Olympian biopic, something along the lines of NBC’s The Wilma Rudolph Story, this time told in toothsome whiteface. A group of seasoned veterans — James Coburn, Curt Jürgens, Robert Culp, Harry Guardino, Michael Lerner, Leslie Caron, and tennis great John Newcombe giving it his near mute best — bolstering Miss America runner-up Susan Anton’s big screen bow held zero appeal. My introduction to Miss Anton would have to wait for her inevitable appearance on a Bob Hope special.

But wait. Preliminary research unearthed this banger synopsis on IMDb: “A neo-Nazi doctor tries to make a superwoman of his daughter who has been specially fed, exercised and conditioned since she was a child in preparation of the Olympics.” Nazis? Olympics? Holy Leni Riefenstahl! Why didn’t somebody tell me there were goose-stepping fascists afoot? Nazis make the best enemies. I’d have been first in line on opening day.

Other than Goldine Serafin (Ms. Anton) clothed in a red warmup suit and the cut-out heads of the five male co-stars (arranged in the shape of the Olympic rings) who form her on-screen consortium of investors, the poster failed to mention a word about the step-daughter of a Nazi who’s been eugenically generated 30 to 40 years ahead of time, to transform an uncanny flair for running in circles into a multi-million-dollar marketing goldmine. Why wasn’t the Nazi angle played up? Goldengirl wasn’t intended as a mere theatrical release. It was a trick-deal with pixels in the mix! According to the Blu-ray’s special features interview with Susan Anton, AVCO Embassy Pictures was in cahoots with NBC. The finished product would run a little over three hours. A shortened version would play theatrically at a truncated running time of 104 minutes with the long version spread out over two nights as a four-hour miniseries. Some things aren’t meant to be.

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It’s hard to believe that the long version wouldn’t have shed more light on the Nazi backstory. In its edited form, what should have been a main plot-motivator is but a throwaway mention. Other than that, the only thing even remotely interesting about this statuesque blonde wearing running suits that are so tight they appear to have been spray-painted on is her Aryan ancestry. By all accounts, the 184-minute cut is lost to the ages. The manner in which Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson’s wackily affectionate audio commentary gets off on the mere thought of unearthing the uncut version you’d think they were on the trail of the missing reels of Greed.

What follows details Goldine’s training for and subsequent winning of (SPOILER ALERT) the three medals. Coburn’s smile outperformed all, and Culp actually gets around to doing some acting. Jürgens had played this type of character so often, he could have done it in his sleep. This would be his farewell performance. Director Joseph Sargent had at least one unqualified masterwork to his credit. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a veritable textbook on how to hijack a New York subway car c.1974 with a curtain line you’ll never forget. Coburn and Culp were pretty much capable of directing themselves. Guardino comes off worst, his performance calling for little more than talking with his mouth full and sexist slobbering. Anton’s beauty is eternal and under-cranking the camera just a little bit gave her runner the illusion of speed. It’s when the test tube athlete took her frustration out on a television tube that the unintentional howls reached their zenith.

The bonus features also boast a lengthy career overview by composer Bill Conti and a few minutes with character actor Nicholas Coster. You may not be familiar with the latter’s name, but you’ll recognize him the instant you see him. Listening to Coster go on about his job, you’d think he was the luckiest guy on the planet. So infectious is he, the segment will end leaving you with a permanent grin that’ll be tough to shake.


Kino Lorber to Give ‘The Great Escape’ the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Treatment

Kino Lorber Jan. 11 will release the action classic The Great Escape on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, under the indie’s Kino Lorber Studio Classics line.

The 1963 film, with Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Richard Attenborough, follows a group of Allied POWs who attempt one of the largest and most daring breakouts in history. The acclaimed collaboration between director John Sturges, screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, and composer Elmer Bernstein, The Great Escape received a 1964 Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing and a Best Motion Picture — Drama Golden Globe nomination.

The film is set during World War II in Germany’s Stalag Luft III, a maximum-security prisoner-of-war camp designed to hold even the craftiest escape artists. The Nazis unwittingly assemble the finest escape team in military history. Together, under the guidance of the brilliant Bartlett (Attenborough), the resourceful Hendley (Garner) and the steely, determined Hilts (McQueen), the men plot, scheme and dig their way to freedom.

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc comes with hours of bonus content, including a new audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Steve Mitchell and Combat Films: American Realism author Steven Jay Rubin.

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Also included is an audio commentary with director Sturges and actors Garner, Coburn, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum and Jud Taylor, along with various crew members; a making-of documentary; three other documentaries narrated by Burt Reynolds; a look at the real Virgil Hilts; a documentary by Steven Clarke; additional interviews; and the original theatrical trailer.  

‘The Great Escape’ Tribute Documentary ‘The Coolest Guy Movie Ever’ Available Now From Virgil Films

The Coolest Guy Movie Ever, a tribute to the John Sturges classic The Great Escape, is available now on DVD ($14.99), EST and VOD from Virgil Films.

The documentary follows hardcore fans that return to the locations where the film was made, revealing little known facts about The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Narrated by an actor in the film, Lawrence Montaigne, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever celebrates the 55th anniversary of the theatrical release of The Great Escape.